Was the Nazi SS studying insects with the intent of launching a bug-based attack? A new analysis of archived documents concludes that, yes, they were.

Scholars have known for decades the feared SS (Schutzstaffel or "protection squadron") in Nazi Germany had established an entomological research institute at the Dachau concentration camp. Documents that survived World War II describe experiments related to biological warfare. However, it can be difficult to parse whether these experiments were intended to protect against insect-borne Allied attacks, or to devise ways to use insects as bioweapons against the enemies of the Third Reich.

After reading through historical documents, including those descriptions of experiments and their results, a modern-day entomologist has concluded the SS wanted to create creepy-crawly weapons. [7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments]

"You cannot suggest this was defensive research anymore," said Klaus Reinhardt, who studies bedbugs and fruit fly sperm biology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany. But, he said, "in technical terms it was far away from a bomb, or a massive malaria infection and breeding program being carried out."

Evil entomology

On Jan. 2, 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, the organization that controlled the police force and the concentration camp system, ordered the creation of an entomological institute. This wasn't an overt call for biological warfare research. Hitler had forbidden research into bioweapons, although some authorities attempted to circumvent this ban, Reinhardt writes in an article published in the December issue of the journal Endeavour.

There were other reasons for Himmler to launch studies of insects. Insect-borne diseases, such as typhus, threatened SS troops and concentration camp guards. Reinhardt also links the foundation of the institute with the SS supplying slave laborers to industry in return for financial support from the companies. Without a certain survival rate among the prisoners, the SS could not uphold their end, he writes. [5 Lethal Chemical Warfare Agents]

Himmler also had a personal motivation: a phobia of flies.

Reinhardt stumbled across this topic when he noticed that a German book on dragonflies first published in 1933 by an unknown in the field, Eduard May, which sparked his curiosity. Reinhardt then found that the same Eduard May had also headed up the SS's entomological institute, in spite of his poor qualifications. Reinhardt's research offers a glimpse into the inner workings, and dysfunction, of the SS by revealing how more qualified candidates were passed over.

Mosquitos, fleas & flies

The entomological institute was established at Dachau, where some Nazi researchers conducted horrific experiments on prisoners. Dr. Claus Schilling inoculated prisoners with malaria, and Schilling's malaria research was one reason for locating the insect studies at Dachau. (Schilling was tried, convicted and executed after a war crimes trial.) However, May reportedly refused to conduct experiments on humans. 

May arrived with a background in pesticides, and research in this area was at the top of all of the institute's proposed research programs. In a meeting, he discussed pesticides as a defense against a bio-attack — "the airborne dropping of plant pests" — and proposed using toxins sprayed from an airplane, Reinhardt writes.

Mosquitos were a major focus, and documents discuss the feasibility of dropping mosquitos from an airplane in order to cause a mass malaria infectionand how to counter such an attack.

The intent of the experiments —offensive or defensive —is often debatable, but Reinhardt sees clear evidence of intent to use the insects as weapons when May recommends a certain mosquito species, Anopheles maculipenni, based on experiments showing its ability to survive longer without food.

"'If you want to use them take this species.' This is in an active voice and an active recommendation," Reinhardt told Live Science. "It is unlikely to be interpreted as defensive."

However, the studies were not done with malaria-infected mosquitos, so the ability to launch such an attack was so far away as to be almost irrelevant, he said.

The institute also appears to have worked with fleas, although details are scarce, because most surviving evidence is circumstantial. For instance, May sought a meeting with a plague expert and access to fluorescence microscopy in order to study the survivability of microorganisms; the institute also sought rats for experiments, Reinhardt writes. (Plague bacteria are spread through rats and fleas.)

Himmler's phobia got its due as well. A research protocol documents an experiment in which flies were exposed to a fly-killing fungus.

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